Apr 26, 2019

Portal To Success: Optimizing Tech to Increase Patient Access

By Heidi Shalev Director of Marketing and Customer Service 

Build it and they will come.

That may have worked in a Hollywood movie but when it comes to patient portals, building it doesn’t mean patients are using it. A recent survey shows 90% of healthcare organizations offer patient portals, great progress, yet just 30% of patients actively use those portals.

ARC is among U.S. leading healthcare providers in this area, demonstrating high utilization rates and reaping important benefits – for both ARC and patients. Of our more than 500,000 Central Texas patients, 57% (or 285,000 patients) are using our portal called ARC MyChart. And they’re using it in ways that make their lives easier – and ease the workload of our physicians and staff.

Two Key Steps to Portal Success

Like any company-wide initiative, you need a plan and team to execute the plan. We kept our portal strategy simple, boiled down to three elements that drive our decision-making:

  • Simplify access to services
  • Enhance patient engagement
  • Reduce clinical workload

The portal impacts every department in our organization — something considered when we built our team. Ours is a cross-functional team that includes operations, revenue cycle, physicians, nursing, staff development, IT, EMR, marketing and more. Weekly “portal meetings” were held in conference rooms with two dozen people involved and providing input.

Some might say having so many voices might cause the project to be bogged down in details. I would say, it is because we listened to many perspectives and because all our departments are involved in the product, that they themselves have become “portal ambassadors,” using it, telling patients about it, providing feedback on it.

Features that Matter to Patients, Providers

A cornerstone of our patient portal is the online scheduling. We knew patients wanted to book appointments without having to pick up the phone. Today, 21% of appointments are scheduled online by our MyChart active patients. That represents a 24% increase over the past year.

Here’s another way our portal is helping our doctors, easing patients’ access to care, and reducing admin work. We can fill the schedules of our new primary care physicians by adding them to online appointment scheduling.

Overtime, we have added specialty and other appointment visit types including ones that cover screening mammograms, sports medicine, flu vaccines, dermatology, podiatry, ADHD follow-ups, well woman exams, Medicare wellness, and ARC Healthiness weight management visits.

We’ve made this function highly visible to our patients. Nearly every single webpage includes a “book now,” “make an appointment,” or “request an appointment” link.

Beyond scheduling, we’ve used the portal to expedite the check-in process allowing patients to “e-check in” before appointments, completing time-consuming paper work at home rather than in waiting rooms.

Online bill pay allows patients to pay when they want to (and not have to call or find a stamp to send via snail mail). Additionally, providers receive payment more quickly. As Chief Financial Officer Ted Matthews noted in an April 11 ARC Leadership Blog, in just six months, we went from zero to 24% of payments coming in online.

Overall, higher portal usage rates are occurring among high healthcare users, regardless of age. It makes sense as to why that is. The ARC portal allows patients to ask questions, view test results, review medications, view upcoming and past visits, access health summaries, download copies, and view billing statements. And with information accessible online, “care gaps” are more easily identified and closed such as cancer screenings and needed vaccinations.

Promote it Everywhere, All the Time

None of this works, of course, without effectively getting the word out to all audiences. Our portal’s helpful features are strongly promoted to physicians, staff and patients via internal newsletters, videos and training. Overcommunicating has been our strategy, and it has worked.

Vanity URLs in our ad campaigns help direct patients to the online scheduling tool they need. ARCappointments.com,  guides patients via a simple “decision tree.” ARCbooknow.com allows new patients to book directly onto a doctor’s schedule.  

Not Perfect, but Always Improving

Feedback from all our audiences is continually solicited, analyzed and acted upon, leading to tweaks, additions and other portal improvements. Most improvements are applauded, however patients do not like sweeping change.

Our 2017 portal upgrade that included a complete redesign caused confusion. Just 64% of ARC patients rated the portal as “easy to use” after the upgrade, compared to 73% before the upgrade. It’s an area we need to improve — simplifying the portal. We also know we need to keep up with technology such as interacting with patients’ wearable devices and expanding use of “video visits” with clinicians.

This you can count on: if done right, investing in a portal can increase patient access, simplify the patient experience, enhance patient engagement, and decrease clinical workload so staff can focus on the patients who need the most help.  We aren’t looking back.

Heidi Shalev is the Director of Marketing and Customer Service and the ARC MyChart patient portal lead at Austin Regional Clinic.